In late 2021 and early 2022, it was commonplace for journalists and public intellectuals to demonize and shame “the unvaccinated,” a group that in the United States was disproportionately low income. The New York Times ran pieces like “I’m Furious at the Unvaccinated,” and “Unvaxxed, Unmasked and Putting Our Kids at Risk.” The Los Angeles Times published a column titled “Mocking anti-vaxxers’ COVID deaths is ghoulish, yes—but may be necessary.” An opinion piece called “The Unvaccinated Are a Risk to All of Us” appeared in Bloomberg, and The Washington Post printed a piece called “Macron is right: It’s time to make life a living hell for anti-vaxxers.”
CNN’s Don Lemon commented that people refusing the vaccines were being “idiotic and nonsensical.” He argued that it was time to “start shaming them” or “leave them behind.” Noam Chomsky, a self-described libertarian socialist, said unvaccinated people should remove themselves from society and be “isolated.” Asked how they would get food that way, he answered, “Well actually, that’s their problem.”
In Canada, columnists for the Toronto Star proclaimed, “Vaccine resisters are lazy and irresponsible—we need vaccine passports now to protect the rest of us” and “The unvaccinated cherish their freedom to harm others. How can we ever forgive them?” In the U.K., the Daily Mail contended, “It’s time to punish Britain’s 5 million vaccine refuseniks,” and Piers Morgan, a British presenter on TalkTV, suggested that unvaccinated people should not be allowed access to the country’s National Health Service.
Internationally, several politicians threatened to reimplement restrictions and told the public that “the unvaccinated” were at fault. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said unvaccinated people “are very often misogynistic and racist,” and asked, “Do we tolerate these people?” President Joe Biden said that his “patience [was] wearing thin” and that we needed to “protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated coworkers.” Michael Gunner, chief minister of the Northern Territory in Australia, stated that even if you are vaccinated, “if you are anti-mandate, you are absolutely anti-vax.” French President Emmanuel Macron declared that 5 million French people who remained unvaccinated were “not citizens.”
Across parts of the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe, unvaccinated people were fired from their jobs, excluded from higher education, banned from many sectors of public life, denied organ transplants, and even punished by judges in probation hearings and child custody cases. Meanwhile, COVID cases continued to rise in many highly vaccinated countries with vaccine passports and other restrictions in place.
Vaccine mandates were mainly rationalized through the belief that the higher the rate of vaccination, the less the virus would spread. For example, during oral arguments for Biden’s health care worker mandate, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Elena Kagan claimed that health care workers had to get vaccinated “so that you’re not transmitting the disease.” But recently, on Oct. 10, 2022, a Pfizer spokesperson told the European Parliament that the vaccines had never actually been tested for preventing transmission. While this was presented on social media as “breaking news,” the fact that the vaccines were not tested for this purpose has been documented extensively ever since Pfizer and Moderna received their original Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).
During the Dec. 10, 2020, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) meeting when the first mRNA vaccines were authorized, FDA adviser Dr. Patrick Moore stated, “Pfizer has presented no evidence in its data today that the vaccine has any effect on virus carriage or shedding, which is the fundamental basis for herd immunity.” Despite the data presented for individual efficacy, he continued, “we really, as of right now, do not have any evidence that it will have an impact, social-wide, on the epidemic.” The FDA EUA press release from December 2020 also confirms that there was no “evidence that the vaccine prevents transmission of SARS-COV-2 from person to person.”
Simply put, the reason many people believed the vaccines stopped transmission was because government officials and media outlets across the Western world were either careless with their words or did not tell the truth. In 2021, for instance, Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Rochelle Walensky claimed that vaccinated people “do not carry the virus,” and Dr. Anthony Fauci said they would become “dead ends” for the virus. Any speculation that the vaccines significantly reduced transmission was based on limited results from independent studies and the false assumption that the vaccine would prevent infection. Without adequate evidence, vaccination campaigns called on people to get vaccinated not just for their own protection, but to help “protect others” and “save lives.”
Meanwhile, social media companies coordinated with the Biden administration to censor dissent. Many people who asked questions about efficacy or safety risked banishment from Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. Now, however, as more and more studies come out, it is increasingly clear that some of the information these companies censored was true.
For anyone content with their vaccination status, this might not be a big deal. Yes, the vaccine information that was provided in 2021 wasn’t entirely accurate, but you might still feel that getting vaccinated was the right decision. However, being misinformed about potential benefits and risks is an enormous deal for, say, a male college athlete who got vaccinated because he wanted to protect his elderly family members, but who then developed myocarditis. Telling him that this is fine because “there was so much unknown” is probably not much of a consolation, especially since his decision to get vaccinated was never going to protect his family members in the first place, and the vaccine manufacturers were given blanket immunity from liability.
It is one thing for the pharmaceutical companies, the Biden administration, the CDC, and the media to intentionally or unintentionally mislead the public; but it is another thing entirely for them to do this while government agencies actively coordinated to suppress alternative views or inconvenient data. While executives and bureaucrats may excuse their errors by claiming that “the science changed,” the public has every right to demand better. Science is the process of discovery through observation and experimentation; of course it changes. That’s why “settled science” is obviously a political, not a scientific term, and why anyone should be able to publicly question scientific consensus at any time. Instead of allowing for debate, political and bureaucratic officials conducted a campaign of mass censorship and coercion. This effectively undermined the principle of informed consent and has resulted in a scandal affecting millions of people.
It was not until August 2022 that the CDC issued guidance that called for vaccinated and unvaccinated people to no longer be subjected to different testing or quarantine protocols. To justify this change in guidance, the CDC cited the protection provided by previous infection as well as breakthrough infections. Yet studies had already shown by the fall of 2021 that the vaccines did not prevent infection, that natural immunity was at least as protective, that vaccinated people had similar viral loads to unvaccinated people, and that vaccinated people had a role in transmission.
All this was true before the arrival of the omicron variant, and all of this was true before the majority of U.S. vaccine mandates were issued. Nevertheless, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook all had policies that made questioning the CDC, the WHO, and government authorities potential grounds for censorship, prohibiting discussion of alternative treatments or suggestions that vaccination has varying levels of benefits for different people. Documents from the Missouri v. Biden case have revealed that the CDC proposed a monthly “debunking” meeting with Facebook and that Facebook and Twitter sought input from the CDC in deciding what to censor. For the Biden administration, it was a foregone conclusion that everyone should get vaccinated, so the goal of censorship was simply to increase vaccine uptake.
This was an anti-science stance that stripped people of their right to make informed choices or to even access verified data. On Facebook, for instance, a thorough investigation by the British Medical Journal into data integrity problems with the Pfizer trial was flagged as “missing context,” and Facebook directed readers to an inaccurate “fact check” of the investigation. On Twitter, as a result of censorship policies, accounts have been suspended temporarily or permanently for displaying Pfizer’s own trial data and sharing information from peer-reviewed papers. Why? Because the official vaccine message was so rigid that basic reality was considered “misleading.”
By now, many studies have shown that some of the once-censored concerns of “vaccine hesitant” people actually had validity. Facebook explicitly prohibited the claim that breast milk from vaccinated women could be harmful, but now a recent study has found that mRNA was present in breast milk, and the study urged caution when breastfeeding shortly after vaccination. The CDC previously told breastfeeding mothers that getting vaccinated was likely to benefit their babies, and many pregnant women were mandated to get vaccinated even though this population had been excluded from the vaccine trials.
A claim on Facebook or Twitter like “children who have had COVID should not get vaccinated” could also be subject to censorship, but new data suggests that young children who were previously infected might not see long-term benefits from vaccination. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine now shows that children ages 5-11 who had a prior infection but were not vaccinated had a lower risk of being reinfected than children who had a prior infection and did get vaccinated. After five months, protection against reinfection for the vaccinated children was negative.
Concealing important data and censoring the debate helped create an illusion of consensus and, as people were removed from social media platforms, erased the record of disagreement and skepticism. Open discussion of conditions like myocarditis and pericarditis or cardiac deaths was also penalized despite 2021 data from Israel that confirmed elevated rates of myocarditis linked to vaccination. A later Israeli study from May 2022 found that cardiac arrest among people under 40 increased by 25% during the vaccine rollout. In the United States, the CDC was supposed to make its “v-safe” safety data public by Sept. 30. The CDC failed to do so but was forced to reveal this data through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Of 10 million people in the “v-safe” program, 25% had a vaccine side effect that caused them to miss school or work and 7.7% had to seek medical care. Should Americans only be hearing about this kind of safety data now, or should it have been available before vaccine mandates were put in place?
Should California doctors lose their medical licenses if they favor guidance from Sweden and Denmark over guidance from the CDC?
Censorship of medical dissent is now being expanded in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed Assembly Bill 2098 into law, officially granting the California Medical Board the authority to penalize and suspend the licenses of doctors who intentionally spread “misinformation or disinformation” about COVID risks and prevention, as well as the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccines. In the U.K. and Sweden, by contrast, COVID vaccines are no longer offered to healthy children under 12, and in Denmark boosters are not available for anyone under 50. Clearly there is no international consensus on COVID vaccines for young people. Should California doctors really lose their medical licenses if they favor guidance from Sweden and Denmark over guidance from the CDC?
Apart from being a potential first amendment violation and intrusion on the doctor-patient relationship, this new misinformation bill raises the question of whether, after everything we have just witnessed, a single medical authority should really be presumed to be all-knowing or infallible. Time and again, the “medical consensus” has proved to be incorrect. In the 19th century, doctors believed it was safe to deliver babies without washing their hands, resulting in the deaths of countless women from puerperal fever. In the 20th century, compulsory sterilization of disabled people was considered to be a legitimate and ethical medical practice, and in 1949, the developer of the lobotomy won the Nobel Prize for medicine. As recently as this year, scientists discovered that the entire basis for over a decade of Alzheimer’s research was fraudulent.
In the case of COVID, while claiming that it was the dissenters who caused harm, it was in fact the censors and enforcers of speech restrictions who caused immense damage to the social fabric and to the lives of individuals. The excuse that medical segregation was once necessary but is no longer necessary because “the facts changed” or “the science changed” is demonstrably false. The facts didn’t change. They were just banned.
Alex Gutentag (@galexybrane) is a writer and Tablet columnist based in California.